June 17, 2024

Is There Any Truth About “Cocaine Sharks” On Shark Week?

Shark Week is here, and it brings a mixed bag of entertaining shows to watch. One that has attracted a lot of attention is “Cocaine Sharks,” which explores the strange phenomenon of how sharks may interact with cocaine that ends up in the ocean due to its illegal behavior.

And although the experiments were preliminary, the research scientist and program manager at NOAA who was part of the experiments filmed in Key West says that the show sheds light on an urgent issue – the presence of drugs in our waterways and the impact they can have on marine life. “There’s a lot of legitimacy to it [the] clickbait headline,” says Dr. Floridian Tracy Fanara, whose environmental engineering expertise and work focuses on chemical transport and ocean currents. “While we are in the Keys were being filmed, bales of cocaine were washing ashorelike twice in one week, so it’s really a common question.”

In nine separate operations earlier this year, the US Coast Guard successfully recovered a massive $275 million worth of drugs from both the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. Florida serves as a key entry point for drugs into the US due to its geographic location and extensive coastline, making it a strategic location for drug trafficking routes. US law enforcement agencies are constantly working to combat drug trafficking activities here, implementing measures to intercept illegal shipments that can often be washed ashore. This raises concerns about its impact on marine life, as sharks follow ocean currents, and there is a strong possibility that they could come into contact with the drug.

“[This show sheds] light on a real problem, that everything we use, everything we do, everything we put into our bodies, ends up in our wastewater streams and natural bodies of water, and that these aquatic life that we depend on to survive are exposed to that,” said Fanara The Guardian. “If these cocaine bales are a point source of pollution, it’s very plausible (sharks) will be affected by this chemical.”

With this in mind, Fanara and British marine biologist Tom ‘Blowfish’ Hird went to the Keys to do some experiments with the Shark Week camera crew while they were towing. According to Fanara, numerous studies after inspecting the presence of drugs in water bodies, because these substances are often found in waterways and are known to affect aquatic life. For example, a 2021 study found that methamphetamine induces addiction and changes the behavior of brown trout. When these fish are exposed to the drug, these fish experience changes in their movement and can even experience withdrawal symptoms! The introduction of such drugs into water bodies is often attributed to sewage transported through wastewater plants. “This is a real issue and we are not making any new water. […] The same water we will have 1,000 years from now is the same water we had 1,000 years ago,” said Fanara, adding that our water supply goes through wastewater treatment systems and then returns to water bodies, and we eventually consume the water.

However, none of the previous studies specifically examined the effects of drugs on sharks. “My goal with this experiment was to shed light on the real problem of chemicals in our waterways that affect our aquatic life and then ultimately affect us,” Fanara said. Once in the Keys, Fanara and Hird dropped fake cocaine-like bales into the water to observe the sharks’ behavioral responses. Specifically, they wanted to see if the sharks were drawn to the fake cocaine coils and chose them over their normal food. In addition, the duo exposed the sharks to a stimulant such as cocaine to observe their behavior when subjected to it. “Obviously we can’t give cocaine to sharks, especially not in the wild, despite the fact that it would be a much more accurate study – it’s not ethical.”

Cocaine is a potently addictive stimulant, which typically induces feelings of energy and euphoria in users and causes physical changes in the body including increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, along with potential long-term effects on the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is not known how this would translate into fish but Fanara says, “[Hird] noticed some strange behavior, but there is no telling whether the behavior changes Shark related to cocaine exposure or if it was just a coincidence. Definitely, more research needs to be done.” Hird adds: “It’s the next best thing and they set their brains on fire. It was crazy.”

The main aim of the study was to determine whether this research question warranted further exploration, and the answer, according to the duo, is “yes.”

“We already know that fish are contaminated with these medications with these recreational drugs,” said Fanara. “So we have to make big changes in our water treatment processes and also in our ethics and our behavior and our day-to-day activities, because it’s not just these recreational drugs that enter waterways, it’s our sunscreens, our insecticides, our herbicides, our fertilizers – all of that just washes into our natural waterways and becomes part of the ecosystem.”

The show hopes to not only spark intrigue, but also serve as a call to action to protect our marine environments. By understanding the impact of drugs on aquatic life, we can take significant steps to conserve our oceans and be more mindful of our impact on the environment.

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